The Soapbox: Why does it feel like I don’t have time for an MMO when I really do?

MMOs, time, and freedom examined

This guest Soapbox was commissioned through MassivelyOP’s Patreon program and is authored by Steve “Sray” Blouin, a name our longtime commenters will surely recognize from his participation in our community over the last many years. The opinions here represent the views of our guest author and not necessarily Massively OP itself. Enjoy!

I recently had a couple thoughts about complaints of how modern MMOs, particularly at “endgame,” are “too time-consuming” or “feel too much like jobs.” A few days ago, I picked up DC Universe Online and was having fun leveling up a new character. I was quite enjoying myself, right up until I hit the level cap of 30. At this point I looked at all of the stuff that suddenly was there for me to do, and I said, “Who the hell has that sort of time?” I then promptly logged off, and I haven’t really been able to get back into it since.

But there’s this thing bugging me: When I said, “Who the hell has that sort of time,” I had been playing the game for about four hours straight at that point, and what I did upon logging off was go to my TV and start watching the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (for those unaware, the extended versions all clock in over three and an half hours). Pretty clearly, I have that sort of time. And yet I somehow felt that I didn’t.

Here’s the first thing I realized: As a general rule, anyone who sits down with the intention of playing a MMORPG probably has at least an hour or two to spare. In many MMOs, even raids – generally the lengthiest content in any MMO – can readily be broken down into hour-long chunks via checkpoints for organized groups to resume and complete over several days. Furthermore, statistically, most adults today actually have more free time than at any other point in history. The number of entertainment choices we have available to us is a staggering testament to how much leisure time we actually have. If you’re watching four hours’ worth of Game of Thrones or Grey’s Anatomy on a Wednesday night, you’ve got time for an MMORPG’s grind.

So, as someone who makes “ain’t nobody got time for that” statements on a frequent basis, I have to question how true the “too time-consuming” complaint really is.

My subsequent realization was that if gamers in general actually do have the amounts of time available that these games ask of them (barring those larger-scale activities that are designed to take several hours), then perhaps our complaints about time and MMOs are not really about time consumption but about something else.

“The problem wasn’t the amount of time it was suddenly asking me to spend but how it was asking me to spend that time.”
What really pushed me away from DCUO (and many other MMOs, I realize in hindsight) wasn’t the amount of time it was suddenly asking me to spend but how it was asking me to spend that time. Through the leveling process, I had largely just been running around to see the sights of Gotham and Metropolis, getting exploration and investigation feats, doing quests as I felt up to it, and generally just goofing around.

But upon hitting max level, I was suddenly bombarded with a huge number of activities that were mandatory not only in order to continue character advancement (even if I didn’t care about continued character power progression) but simply to have any sort of meaningful interaction with the game at that point. This made the goofing-around activities I had been doing largely meaningless within the greater context of the game; worse, it took what I had done for fun and made it mandatory. It was stifling to me.

So perhaps the complaints of MMO endgame being “too time-consuming” and “feels like a job” don’t actually come from a place of players lacking in time (although that’s still a fair criticism of certain activities); maybe it’s a criticism of the lack of freedom in present day MMOs. I’d enjoyed DCUO while leveling how I wanted to, but at the max level there was no longer any choice: If I wanted to continue to advance my character, I had to do the activities laid out before me, as they were intended, and if I didn’t want to do that, there was nothing left for me in the game.

Perhaps the issue that I, and others like me, have with present day MMOs is not the amount of time they ask for, but rather how they require me to spend that time, along with the fact that those activities often do not feel like a fair trade-off for many of non-gaming activities that one would have to forego in order to participate in them.

Originally, the “reward” for hitting “max level” in games like Star Wars Galaxies or City of Heroes was essentially “being done”: Power progression ended at max level, as did any sort of gear grind. This afforded players unlimited freedom within the game and the power to utilize that freedom as they choose.

But in many of today’s MMOs, the “reward” for the player having made his way through the leveling content is being handed a million things to do – things that must be done in order to notch up incremental stat increases, things you get in order to become stronger against new foes that are balanced against your new stats anyway (all of which makes the point of the endgame stat progression a bit hazy). Even many supposedly optional activities ultimately become non-optional: Sandbox elements like housing are frequently tied into endgame balance and/or progression in many MMOs, which turns something that was supposed to be just a fun thing to do into yet another task that must be done. Essentially, the leveling process simply gives way to more leveling, but it’s a less satisfying version of leveling since it exists simply for the point of existing. Any choice of how to pursue your time at max level is stripped out of the modern MMORPG; your only real choice is which treadmill you want to run on to pursue what feels like little more than an infinite leveling loop.

At this point I want to say that there is nothing wrong enjoying with the infinite vertical progression of present-day MMORPGs. I consider people who like modern endgame loops to be more fortunate individuals than I, since they are better served by the current market. But it is also clear that there are a large number of gamers out there who not only find this sort of gameplay loop to be unenjoyable but realize that it actively discourages them from playing MMOs.

I suppose what this comes down to is that present-day MMO endgame content is made to be a form of progression, and that progression comes along after you’ve already spent as much time as many single-player RPGs take to complete their primary campaigns (30 to 40 hours at a minimum for most MMOs) simply to progress your character to max level, all in order to pursue what amounts to even more leveling with absolutely no alternative if you want to continue playing at the max level. What frustrates me with MMOs today – and other online games following MMO style infinite vertical progression – is the lack of an “end”: a place at which the player has reached the pinnacle of any sort of power progression, and now has the choice of using it as a logical jumping off point (like retiring or rolling alts) or enjoying the freedom to just wander and pursue personal goals. Instead of getting the emotional release of having hit a sort of conclusion and being given our “freedom,” we’re confronted with infinite tasks and infinite progression, which leave us feeling as if we’ll never be “done.”

And this is precisely what creates that job-like feeling and the “ain’t nobody got time for that” mentality (which is probably a hell of a lot less true for many of us than we think).

When it comes to MMORPGs, I don’t think I’m alone in looking for an endgame that isn’t just more progression. I’m looking for an endgame that exists as the reason for having gone through all that progression. I want something… different. I don’t know exactly what “different” is, how it works, or even what it looks like, but I do know that it starts with an ending.

We’d like to thank Steve for supporting MassivelyOP and for his thought-provoking essay!
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